Energy Transition: Waste-To-Energy

In the era of climate change and the rapid drainage of earth’s resources, energy crisis is a looming threat. Unmonitored use of renewable energy sources and ill-managed sewage disposal systems are inviting a catastrophe. But before that, have you ever thought about what happens to the waste that you dispose of? 

Let’s look at The journey of garbage in simple terms. Imagine you are a piece of trash (not rhetorically but quite literally). After commuting in several ways, you mostly end up in one of the 3 places depending on the kind of material you are – Recycling Plants, Landfills, Waste to Energy plants. If you’re lucky enough you might even be transported (read dumped) to another country. Some trash ends up in the ocean too which is unintentional/illegal in most countries but that’s a different story altogether. 

Now, let’s dig in and get to know a little about the destinations. 

  • Landfills – The majority of Solid Waste’s endpoint. It is either burned or left to degrade by soil. Either way, it releases harmful greenhouse gases (methane mostly) causing air and land pollution.

  • Recycling plants – The recyclable waste is segregated from the rest and recycled. The sorting of waste usually is done by cheap labor in populous Asian countries. With labor laws becoming stringent across the world, it is now economical to buy new stuff (like plastic) than to recycle. Also, developed nations dump their waste in underdeveloped countries in the pretext of recycling it there using legal loopholes. The garbage in those countries in reality is left as it is or ends up in the ocean. The waste henceforth is accumulated in the pacific ocean forming a huge patch. Estimates say that there are 88,000 tonnes of trash in the Great Pacific garbage patch causing water pollution on an unimaginable magnitude.
Energy Transition: Waste-To-Energy
  • Waste to Energy Plants – This right here is the most desirable destination of all. If we talk energy as resources and equate resources to money, imagine trash giving you money! This is theoretically a carbon-negative process. It simply means something “negative” turning not just to “zero” but “positive”. Sounds like the panacea to it all right? Yes, it is.
Energy Transition: Waste-To-Energy

Converting waste into energy is usually done by incineration – burning the trash. But this strategy has some ecological disadvantages. The better solution is Gasification – Converting the waste under some controlled conditions into a gas called Syngas which is cleaner and economical. This synthetic gas has multiple applications ultimately giving energy as the output.

Companies like Enerkem, Plasco, and Sierra energy have scaled up their operations in this sphere and are ready to revolutionize the energy sector. 

INDIA’S CASE:  India currently relies on the informal sector, inadequate infrastructure, and dumping of waste. The unparalleled economic growth in the last three decades owing to economic liberalization led to a 40% growth in the urban population. Consumption levels also grew in tandem with the economy and population but Sewage disposal infrastructure changed little. 

Usually, there are several departments for various kinds of waste and a hierarchy of garbage storage systems. They are not adequately integrated. Lack of training, unsafe waste collection practices (often binmen don’t wear protective gear) and the unavailability of qualified waste management professionals only add to the trouble. 

Energy Transition: Waste-To-Energy

In the last decade or two India also witnessed the emergence of Megacities(Industrial cities with population > 10 million) which are currently 5 – Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai. Hyderabad and Ahmedabad are expected to be added to the list very soon. But the waste management and public attitude towards waste in these cities are very ordinary. 

Bengaluru, the Silicon Valley of India does not have any scientific treatment facilities for solid waste generated by industries and households. This has led to several unauthorized and illegal sites in the city. In the capital city, Delhi NCR, air pollution has become a grave concern. When AQI (air quality index) crosses ‘100’ cities like Bangkok are shut down until normalcy is reached. In Delhi, there has been an instance of AQI crossing ‘999’, but a city of its kind cannot afford to be shut down owing to economic reasons. So prevention is the only option. One major factor responsible for Delhi’s air pollution is Stubble burning by farmers in nearby villages. There’s no incentive for farmers to do otherwise. Integrating them with Waste-to-Energy plants and paying them even a bare minimum would do wonders.

Another common problem is segregation at source. This simple step can save millions. In Japan, people are supposed to divide their waste into 6 categories and it is being implemented successfully. In India too there are laws in place for people to divide the waste into two- Dry(Inert waste) and Wet(biodegradable and organic). Even this little act is a fiasco in India. This implies all the waste is burnt. 

Some other simple, researched, and thought-out solutions 

  • Sanitary landfills/Engineered Landfills where layers of garbage are covered with earth debris and left to decompose restricting air pollution.  
  • Decentralizing sewage disposal sector to Self Help Groups (SHG’s) which are generally low-income women’s groups. Provides them economic opportunities that support the growth of family and the country. 
  • Privatizing the sector by including profitable and attractive businesses with clear performance requirements and financial penalties imposed by the ULB on the responsible authority. In simple terms, Reward and Punishment.
  • Waste tax can be imposed to finance the infrastructure. Charging Re.1/person/day would be sufficient to provide effective waste management throughout India. This is a simplified version of Swatch Bharath Cess in India (Charged only on some luxury goods and services). But this method gives the message that it is the responsibility of everyone. 

The mother of all solutions however remains – Waste to Energy plant. It doesn’t differentiate any waste meaning no segregation but gives the same desired output. Large scale commercialization of these around the world would solve the problem of garbage disposal.

An estimated 2 billion tons of waste per year are produced, and the number is expected to grow by 70% by 2050. A shift from Linear economy – produce, use, dispose to Circular economy – Use, Dispose, Reuse is the need of the hour to minimize climate change and keep our environment intact for future generations.